Writing about Lars Von Trier (The Cornfield #29)

Lars von Trier got himself in trouble last week with comments he made after the Cannes Film Festival screening of his latest, Melancholia. In a parallel story, the world proved that it no longer had the ability to recognize a joke when it heard one. Jesus Christ, people. I’m not sure which was more absurd, the outrage of the literalists or the tortured explanations (“I think what Lars meant was…”) of von Trier’s message-board explicators.

I am an admirer of this director’s films. Some of my past writing on the subject is posted below. Note the variety of descriptive terms for von Trier over the years: scalawag, scamp, genius-crackpot, evil sprite, and, of course, “Danish.” I still haven’t seen The Idiots, and haven’t written about Antichrist—yet. We begin with an “intro to” von Trier written 15 years ago, in which I try to suggest the spirit of his work, and then we just keep going.

Von Trier: An Introduction

I think I wrote this general intro to Lars von Trier in 1996 for Film.com, although I don’t remember why.

The end of the four-and-a-half-hour extravaganza called The Kingdom brings us to the loopy story’s bloodiest and most insane moment. This combination of “The Outer Limits” and “General Hospital” has screamed right off its rails, climaxed in horror, and then halted in a completely white screen. The end credits begin to roll, and standing before us is a bland young man, dimpled and handsome. He has all the presence of a grocery clerk, a waiter, or the innocuous-looking boy who lives down the block and poisons kittens. After taking his hands away from his eyes, this man assures us that the story of The Kingdom will continue, and encourages us not to hide our eyes from the nastiness on the screen (it’s only stage blood, anyway), because “Behind closed eyes is where the real horror begins.” Then he holds up a severed head and introduces himself: “My name is Lars von Trier, and I wish you all a very good evening.”

The Kingdom was originally produced for Danish TV, which just reinforces the sense of von Trier updating the puckish emcee role from “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” He’s also made cameo appearances in his own films, though with his own strange emphasis; in The Element of Crime he’s a bald clerk, billed as the “Schmuck of Ages.” But Lars von Trier hasn’t settled into any conventional genre or style, and his similarities to Hitchcock pretty much end there; when the video-store guy handed me a copy of Zentropa and read that the label categorized the movie as a “thriller,” I had to clear my throat and point out that, well, it wasn’t exactly a thriller in the usual sense. There’s nothing usual about von Trier’s movies.

He was born in 1956 and attended the Danish Film School, where he made a handful of award-winning student films. Von Trier’s first feature, The Element of Crime (1984), established the ground rules for his “Trilogy of Europe,” which was continued in Epidemic (1987), the artiest and least satisfying of his films, and Zentropa (aka Europa, 1991). A decidedly postmodern take on the cop movie, Element borrows from all over film history (noticeably Casablanca, Metropolis, M, and The Third Man) but rarely seems slavish, or anything but original. The hero goes tromping through a blasted landscape, ostensibly searching for a child killer but apparently on a more existential quest. From time to time, someone can be heard asking, “Where is the story?”, and von Trier is quite content to wander away from answering that question, content instead to pull off the occasional eye-popping camera movement; there are tracking shots here that manage to evoke both Orson Welles and Sam Raimi at the same crazy moment.

Von Trier also uses monochromatic color and the idea of hypnosis, two running gags in the trilogy. Hypnosis is compared to movie-watching itself; the cop in Element experiences mesmerism at the beginning of the film, and then pleads at the end, “I want to wake up now…”, but the film just fades out. In Epidemic, a film-within-a-film about a coming plague starring von Trier as a director, there is a character named Dr. Mesmer, and the shudder-inducing climax (in which von Trier proves that if he wanted to make a straight horror movie, he could easily freak us out) explodes when a hypnotic session becomes unglued.

Then there is the opening of Zentropa, which gazes down onto moving train tracks as a voice (the sleep-inducing tones of Max Von Sydow, no less) puts the audience under a hypnotic spell. Now, this is actually scary. You sit there wondering if hypnosis could actually be induced by a movie, and then notice that perhaps your eyes are really getting heavy. The rest of the film is a dream of back projections, model work, special effects…a miniature train set of a movie. The hero, an American in 1945 Germany, gets a job as a sleeping-car conductor (an absurdity that the movie leaves cheerfully unelaborated). His uncle, who also works on the train, describes his weird feeling of waking up in the sleeping car and not knowing whether the train is going forward or backward; that’s a handy metaphor for the movie, which delights in disorientation, just as it leaves its hero gasping for air.

Zentropa brought von Trier international acclaim, as well as the Special Jury Prize and the Technical Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. (According to Roger Ebert, when he lost the Palme d’Or to Barton Fink, von Trier flipped the jury the bird.) At that point, the director looked easy to peg: a chilly intellectual, an impertinent trickster, a man who makes movies from his brain, not his guts. But something changed with von Trier around the time of The Kingdom (1994), which has an open, improvisatory texture. Aside from its busy, headlong style, mostly shot with a handheld camera, The Kingdom also has a compulsively watchable story, with at least a dozen main characters involved in all manner of melodrama; in its own way, it’s as chewily entertaining as Gone With the Wind or The Godfather.

Given von Trier’s evolution, Breaking the Waves (1996) makes perfect sense; he has said, “The philosophy for my other films has been ‘Evil Exists.’ The philosophy for this one is ‘Goodness Exists.’” The story is once again a dizzying mix of inspirations, from the spiritual intensity of von Trier’s god (and fellow Danish film-maker) Carl Dreyer to the sublime tackiness of the 1970s pop songbook. But the tale of a Scots woman who clings to her faith despite a harrowing series of disasters is von Trier’s most emotionally direct picture yet. He has said that the movie’s dry, leached-out look (like The Kingdom, it was shot on film, transferred to video, and then back to film) is necessary to counterpoint the three-handkerchief scenario. The result is a movie that truly puts an audience through an experience, a strange kind of enchantment.

If von Trier is no longer an entirely gloomy Dane, he still is marked by contradictions. His next film will be a return to the creepy hallways of The Kingdom, with another set of episodes shot during the summer of 1996. He has announced a film called Khan to be filmed in Mongolia in ’97. Most intriguingly, he is working on an ongoing project called Dimension (featuring a frequent collaborator, the deliciously decadent former Warhol star Udo Kier), which he is shooting in three-minute increments every year; it will be completed in 2004. For a man who lavishes his attention on disease, early death, and the coming apocalypse, he’s nothing if not confident.

Breaking the Waves (1996)

Exceprted from a Film Comment(Nov./Dec. 1996) New York Film Festival wrap-up surveying a bunch of titles from that year. And what a year at NYFF: two titles later became #1 and #2 in my best-of-year accounting for ’96: How I Got Into an Argument…My Sex Life and Breaking the Waves.

The two most transporting items in the New York Festival catalog were a world, and a generation, apart. Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo was one of them, a film that needs no introduction. The other was Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, a nod to the awesome intensity of Carl Theodor Dreyer, filtered through a few 1970s hits. This movie may need no introduction either, especially to Film Comment readers who have already boned up on previous film festival reports from earlier this year. It charts the tribulations of a young woman in a repressive Scottish coastal town, and engages a rather old-fashioned fable of faith in the skin of an experimental movie (von Trier shot it in 35mm., printed it on video, then transferred it back to 35—lending a browned-out dullness to the visuals). It’s a big film, gutsy, likely to repel as many people as it captures. But it gives you a journey rare in the current cinema, a sense that you’ve traveled as far as you can possibly go, and that you’ll have something to think and talk about on the way back. Vertigo does that, too.

Among the heroes here are luminous Emily Watson, as the waif of faith, and Katrin Cartlidge, as her skeptical friend (who is made up to look like Agnes Moorehead in The Magnificent Ambersons). Also cinematographer Robby Müller. The man who shot the rich, evocative images of The American Friend, etc., gives himself over to von Trier’s hand-held, harsh-lit scheme—how many great lensmen would be that adventurous? When I think about Breaking the Waves, I keep coming back to Continue reading